July 21, 2018

PUCC Holy Week Devotion – Tuesday, March 27, 2018

 
If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. – James 1:5

 

The Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference. – Reinhold Niebuhr
 
Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (/ˈraɪnhoʊld ˈniːbʊər/; June 21, 1892 – June 1, 1971) was an American theologianethicist, commentator on politics and public affairs, and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years. Niebuhr was one of America’s leading public intellectuals for several decades of the 20th century and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. A public theologian, he wrote and spoke frequently about the intersection of religion, politics, and public policy, with his most influential books including Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man, the second of which Modern Library ranked one of the top 20 nonfiction books of the twentieth century. Andrew Bacevich labelled Niebuhr’s book The Irony of American History “the most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy.” Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described Niebuhr as “the most influential American theologian of the 20th century” and Time posthumously called Niebuhr “the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.”
 
Reinhold Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of German immigrants Gustav Niebuhr, and Lydia (née Hosto). His father was a German Evangelical pastor; his denomination was the American branch of the established Prussian Church Union in Germany. It is now part of the United Church of Christ. The family spoke German at home. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr also became a famous theological ethicist, and his sister Hulda Niebuhr became a divinity professor in Chicago. The Niebuhr family moved to Lincoln, Illinois, in 1902 when Gustav Niebuhr became pastor of Lincoln’s St. John’s German Evangelical Synod church. Reinhold Niebuhr first served as pastor of a church when he served from April to September 1913 as interim minister of St. John’s following his father’s death.
 
Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College (also part of our UCC) in Illinois and graduated in 1910. He studied at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, where, as he admitted, he was deeply influenced by Samuel D. Press in “biblical and systematic subjects”, and Yale Divinity School, where he earned a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1914 and a Master of Arts degree the following year. He always regretted not taking a doctorate. He said that Yale gave him intellectual liberation from the localism of his German-American upbringing.
 
In 1931 Niebuhr married Ursula Keppel-Compton. She was a member of the Church of England and was educated at Oxford University in theology and history. She met Niebuhr while studying for her master’s degree at Union Theological Seminary. For many years, she was on faculty at Barnard College (the women’s college of Columbia University) where she helped establish and then chaired the religious studies department. The Niebuhrs had two children, Christopher Niebuhr and Elisabeth Niebuhr Sifton. Ursula Niebuhr left evidence in her professional papers at the Library of Congress showing that she co-authored some of her husband’s later writings.
 
Starting as a minister with working-class sympathies in the 1920s and sharing with many other ministers a commitment to pacifism and socialism, his thinking evolved during the 1930s to neo-orthodox realist theology as he developed the philosophical perspective known as Christian realism. He attacked utopianism as ineffectual for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944), “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Niebuhr’s realism deepened after 1945 and led him to support American efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world. A powerful speaker, he was one of the most influential thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s in public affairs. Niebuhr battled with religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of the contradictions of human nature and the optimism of the Social Gospel, and battled with the religious conservatives over what he viewed as their naïve view of scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion”. During this time he was viewed by many as the intellectual rival of John Dewey.
 
Niebuhr’s contributions to political philosophy include utilizing the resources of theology to argue for political realism. His work has also significantly influenced international relations theory, leading many scholars to move away from idealism and embrace realism. A large number of scholars, including political scientists, political historians, and theologians, have noted his influence on their thinking. Aside from academics, numerous politicians, and activists such as former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, and Jimmy Carter; Thomas EdisonMyles HortonMartin Luther King Jr.Hillary ClintonHubert Humphrey, Dean AchesonJames ComeyMadeleine Albright, and John McCain have also cited his influence on their thought. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in Niebuhr’s work, in part because of Obama’s stated admiration for Niebuhr. In 2017, PBS released a documentary on Niebuhr, titled An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.
 
Aside from his political commentary, Niebuhr is also known for having composed The Serenity Prayer, a widely-recited prayer which was popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous. Niebuhr was also one of the founders of both Americans for Democratic Action and the International Rescue Committee and also spent time at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He was also the brother of another prominent theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr.
 
Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.Amen.